The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It (Hardcover)

The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It By Corey Brettschneider Cover Image

The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It (Hardcover)

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American presidents have often pushed the boundaries established for them by the Constitution; this is the inspirational history of the people who pushed back.


Imagine an American president who imprisoned critics, spread a culture of white supremacy, and tried to upend the law so that he could commit crimes with impunity.


In this propulsive and eminently readable history, constitutional law and political science professor Corey Brettschneider provides a thoroughly researched account of assaults on democracy by not one such president but five. John Adams waged war on the national press of the early republic, overseeing numerous prosecutions of his critics. In the lead-up to the Civil War, James Buchanan colluded with the Supreme Court to deny constitutional personhood to African Americans. A decade later, Andrew Johnson urged violence against his political opponents as he sought to guarantee a white supremacist republic after the Civil War. In the 1910s, Woodrow Wilson modernized, popularized, and nationalized Jim Crow laws. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon committed criminal acts that flowed from his corrupt ideas about presidential power. Through their actions, these presidents illuminated the trip wires that can damage or even destroy our democracy.


Corey Brettschneider shows that these presidents didn’t have the last word; citizen movements brought the United States back from the precipice by appealing to a democratic understanding of the Constitution and pressuring subsequent reform-minded presidents to realize the promise of “We the People.” This is a book about citizens—Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Daniel Ellsberg, and more—who fought back against presidential abuses of power. Their examples give us hope about the possibilities of restoring a fragile democracy.



Corey Brettschneider is a professor at Brown University, where he teaches constitutional law and politics. He has written for the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, and Time, and is the author of the book The Oath and the Office. He lives in New York.
Product Details ISBN: 9781324006275
ISBN-10: 1324006277
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: July 2nd, 2024
Pages: 368
Language: English
An inspired history dramatically rendered: the crises five past presidents inflicted on the nation and the moral sense, political skill, and persistence the people mustered to restore constitutional order. Richard Nixon’s abuse of power, however, eluded recovery—why? The Presidents and the People supplies a guide and issues a warning.

— Nancy L. Rosenblum, Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government, Harvard University, emerita

Corey Brettschneider traces a stunning pattern right across American history. Again and again, brave citizens wielded the Constitution against power, arrogance, and racism to save the republic. The Presidents and the People challenges our conventional wisdom about the presidents, the people, the courts, and democracy itself. Deeply researched, beautifully written, dramatic, wise, and inspiring—a must-read for scholars, citizens, and anyone interested in how the United States really works

— James A. Morone, author of Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History and Republic of Wrath: How American Politics Turned Tribal, From George Washington to